Steve Chatterton
Will Write for Food

Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: a New Approach to Outlining

July 24th, 2017 by Steve

Inspiration hides odd places at times. Like when Euripides took a bath and figured out what displacement was all about. Little epiphanies abound, waiting behind every corner, sometimes in groups of twos and threes, just waiting for us to stumble upon them.

Case in point: I was giving some thought to setting up a sideline copyrighting business, so I Googled something like “professional business writing” and came upon this article at the Harvard Business Review. No, seriously. I had to confirm I was wearing a tie before the page would load.

The page was an interview with grammar and usage guru extraordinaire Bryan Garner promoting his HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. In the interview, he’s asked about his madman, architect, carpenter, judge process which he says “was actually devised by a professor of mine at the University of Texas. Her name is Betty Sue Flowers. And I call it the Flowers paradigm.”

He says the approach is a great way to approach writing reports, memos, or letters, but it took me less than a second to realize this could also be used for creative writing as well, from coming up with a story concept to writing a whole freaking novel.

Here’s how it breaks down, step-wise:

  1. Madman: Think less Don Draper, more babbling idiot. This is the brainstorming session, the “hold it loosely” phase of the project. It’s just you and a yellow legal pad, curled up fetal in the corner with your seven-year pen, a tinfoil helmet on your head, writing down any stray thought that comes into your head. Pickles, astronauts, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, crack babies. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming, although someone reviewing your notes out of context might question your sanity. Make some dots, worry about connecting them later. This phase will give you an idea of what your gut tells you about this story and where you might need to do some research.
  2. Architect: In this stage, you evaluate all the dots from your brainstorming and figure out which ones you’ll really need. Organize your thoughts into simple bullet points to see the true bones of the story. Like the name suggests, you’re building a blueprint here. You can’t live in a blueprint, but you can get an idea of what the finished building might look like. Be prepared to review your bullet points ad infinitum before moving on to the next phase. It could save you valuable time and effort in the long run.
  3. Carpenter: This is the point in the ‘build’ of the story that you call in all your trades. Not just the carpenters. You’re going to need framers, plumbers, electricians, masons, roofers, HVAC–the works. Maybe a landscape architect, as well, if you’re a particularly flowery writer. Go to town on this phase, make sure you’re building a strong, stable structure.
  4. Judge: Here’s where the editing comes in. Allow George Saunders’ proverbial Inner Nun into your head and be prepared to justify every word choice before a tribunal.

In the end, you just might have yourself a serviceable story. Who knows. Stranger things have happened.

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A Year in a Day, and the Last Word on Writing Advice

July 21st, 2017 by Steve

Well hey there! I’m celebrating a peculiar anniversary today. A peculiarversary, if you will. It’s been a whole year since I last posted on this blog!

Let’s see, what have we missed? I took a course in short story writing at U of T. It was great. I dedicated over seven months to polishing the story I wrote for that class. It’s awful, and I it will ever see daylight again.

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Science Fiction References in George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

July 21st, 2016 by Steve

A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series

Before becoming arguably the most well-known fantasy writer alive, George R. R. Martin–author of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga that became the hit HBO series Game of Thrones–used to make his living as a science fiction writer. He made his first professional sale ever to Galaxy magazine when they published his story “The Hero” in 1971. According to Wikipedia, “Although Martin often writes fantasy or horror, a number of his earlier works are science fiction tales occurring in a loosely defined future history, known informally as ‘The Thousand Worlds’ or ‘The Manrealm’.”

First, let us assume that Martin–as a successful science fiction writer–is also well-read in the genre. Second, note that Martin has a tendency to reference other works within his own. This page, for instance, details references to everything from The Three Stooges and Blackadder to Jack Vance and Robert Jordan that can be found within the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, many of which have been confirmed by Martin himself.

Given that, it seems likely that Martin–whether consciously or not–might also reference classic works of sci-fi in his fantasy work.

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350: Investing Words

February 3rd, 2016 by Steve


Last time we talked about taking time off after building up a surplus of words. Of course, you can always keep on building up that word count. Instead of saving words for a rainy day, you can save them for an early retirement. The more words you rack up, the sooner you’ll hit your annual goal.

Let’s think of the 350 daily word count not as an average and more of a required minimum. Make time to write every day. Write until you hit that target. Keep on writing until you find a decent place to stop. If you do that, you’ll find yourself progressing to your annual goal quicker. And once you hit that goal, you’ll keep writing, won’t you? Write your little brains out and see just how many words you can get out in a year. And then when the new year rolls around you do it all over again and see if you can beat the previous year’s total.

As of this writing, I’m at 9,534 words on the 22nd writing day of the year. And that’s just on the novel I’m working on. That doesn’t include blogs or anything else. I’m averaging 433 words a day. Today I did over 500, the other day I was just shy of 900. Every day’s a little different and a little bit closer to 91k. If I manage to keep this rate up, I’ll be able to hit the annual target on writing day 210. What? Get out of here. That’s 50 days early. Oh, yeah! That’s over two months ahead of schedule.

It all comes from the power of baby steps. The unparallelled propulsion gained by setting the bar relatively low. Bite-sized chunks on the way to global domination, as it were. I want to write a novel. It’s a big, daunting task. Something I’ve never done before. We’re talking about tens of thousands of words strung together to tell a coherent story. But by splitting the job up into tiny, simple daily tasks, I just might be able to get my first-draft together before Hallowe’en. (I started on January the 4th). Hallelujah.

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350: Banking Words

January 26th, 2016 by Steve


The 350 philosophy helps developing writers get into a routine of writing on a regular basis. With consistency comes consistent quality. But since you’re not making any money writing yet, chances are you have other things you have to do as well. The things you must do to hold down a job and keep your spouse from walking out on you.

That’s where the concept of banking hours comes in. What if you have one of those days where everything falls apart? Those days where you’re the only one that can fix stuff, leaving you no time to write? That’s when you start averaging things out.

Your weekly goal is 1,750 words. If you can’t make every day, maybe you can put in a little bit extra every other day that week. Spread over four days, 437.5 words a day hits the same target, which isn’t asking for too much more. Once you get rolling, you might find it takes only a few extra minutes to hit that goal.

It’s not uncommon to hit your target and keep going. “Just let me finish this one thought,” you’ll say. Or, “Just let me finish this scene.” Or, more often than not, you’ll have a What if? moment and just start writing it through to see where it goes. Whatever the motivation, it’s easy to run over my goal when I get carried away. When this happens, I bank away the extra words and put them toward finishing early or taking a little break. It’s one of the perks of setting a reasonable daily target.

Now let’s assume that like most folks you like to get away every once in a while. Go on vacation. Forget everything for a while. Including your novel in progress. Here’s what you do: change your daily goal. The 91,000 word per annum target assumes 52 weeks of work. If you holiday for two weeks, you can make up for that by averaging out those ten days over the rest of the year. It’ll only cost you an extra 14 words per day. Come on, you can do that standing on your head.

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